6 April 2021 - El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

Should I stay or should I go?


Co-authored by Olivia Bueno, Research Consultant

A call for deeper understanding of children’s perspectives on staying in the Northern Triangle

High unemployment, loss of livelihood, domestic or community violence and lack of government support are just some examples of what pushes people to leave their communities of origin. But what motivates people to stay, even when faced with considerable adversity? Extensive research by intergovernmental organisations and academics is carried out with children who migrate, but much less attention is paid to those who do not - despite often facing the same or similar obstacles.

Policy development tends to follow such trends, focusing on populations on the move. While this approach is valid, it can leave an incomplete picture.  There is an opportunity to focus on the positive narrative around migration, by focusing on the positive factors encouraging children to stay or to return to their communities.

Save the Children’s Migration and Displacement Initiative (MDI) is examining why children stay in communities where many are migrating.  Phase 1 of the research, conducted in 2018, was one of the largest child-focused participatory studies on the topic of migration. The study was carried out in Ethiopia, Burkina Faso and Zambia - all of which have high levels of migration from rural to urban areas. We found that an overwhelming majority of children interviewed - 73% - were not thinking of leaving.

The study highlighted the reality that staying, like migrating, requires agency. It is often a conscious choice that is revisited and renegotiated throughout a person’s life. Of course, this is not always the case and some children stay simply because they lack viable alternatives.

The 2018 study identified five protective factors that increased the likelihood that children would decide to stay:

  • Access to education: Being in school and feeling that they would be able to complete secondary education;
  • Food security: Eating more than one meal a day;
  • Support network: Identifying, and living with, a primary caregiver;
  • Future prospects: A sense that they would be able to “make it” in their home context; and
  • Understanding risks of leaving: an awareness of the risks associated with migration.

Children who were exposed to violence and harm, on the other hand, generally felt compelled to move, even when they would have preferred to stay. This raises important questions about how children’s decision-making may differ in contexts of fragility – where violence and exploitation are commonplace.

The Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) is such a place. Violence and exploitation are endemic and are cited by both families and unaccompanied minors as reasons for migrating from the region, along with poverty and lack of access to education.

Consequently, Save the Children’s MDI is carrying out a second phase of research on Why Children Stay in the Northern Triangle. Building on the 2018 study, Phase 2 will look at the influences of violence, including gang violence and recruitment on children’s decision-making processes. The research will explore child perceptions and experiences, decision-making and push and pull factors, as well as provide programmatic recommendations including reintegration for those returning to communities.

This exploration of Why Children Stay in the Northern Triangle is taking place as the United States seeks to reinvigorate programmes to promote safe, lawful, and orderly migration in and from Central America. Such programmes aim to increase the viability of staying in the region for those who wish to do so by focusing on root causes of migration to the US. Our research will give both Save the Children and policymakers in the US and Central America a better understanding of both sides of the migration dilemma – to stay or to go– in order to offer more comprehensive solutions that better support those who wish to stay to do so.

The Why Children Stay: Northern Triangle report is expected to launch at the end of 2021. For more information please contact ilana.tyler-rubinstein@savethechildren.org

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